The FDA just approved the sexual offspring of cloned animals as human food. There are many who oppose this decision, and the movement to approve direct consumption of clones it heralds, but they do so for reasons based on popular misunderstanding of the technology, speculation as to long term effects, or its unintended consequences. None of these reasons is a sustainable or rational basis for policy, and they are easily refuted by industry and its apologists. Such weak reasoning and lack of scientific rigor will lose this key debate over the future of our industrial food system.
I have concerns about cloned animals in the human food supply, but not for the reasons most others do. The reason I argue for regulation of clones in our livestock is based in the security and sustainability of the human food supply, not the safety of eating cloned animals or their offspring.
The history of human agriculture has been one of continually weeding out irregularity and increasing predictability. Regularity and predictability are the keys to increasing productivity and the foundation of the application of industrial management and mechanization techniques to agricultural production. Most of the plants that form the basis of our industrialized food supply have already passed through the eye of the needle of industrial genetics: most of the plants that contribute to your diet are already clones - entire crops can consist of a single genome. Cloning isn't controversial when applied to plants because it doesn't viscerally strike us as a perversion of the natural order.
There are undeniable benefits to be had from narrowing genetic variation in our food supply, but the cost of relying on a radically narrowed genetic heritage is illustrated by the great corn blight of 1970. That year, 15% of the American corn crop was lost to a fungal infection due to the industrially-induced elimination of genetic variation in the corn crop. Monsanto's patented T-Cytoplasm genes were incredibly vulnerable to a strain of corn blight, yet seed corn containing this time bomb had been incorporated into 80% of the American corn crop because it offered much higher yields.
Reliance upon a single gene line or too narrow a group of gene lines is poor agricultural practice, even if it greatly enhances production or profit. Agriculture is not just a business, it is the basis of human existence. Catastrophic failures can cost lives, not just profits. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) for various livestock species are highly vulnerable to microbial threats not only because of the close proximity of the animals, but because they share so much of their genetic inheritance due to intensive conventional breeding selection. This is the major reason why the CAFO industry is so heavily dependent on massive use of antibiotics. CAFOs are continually poised on the edge of infectious disaster, and the widespread use of cloning in breeding, by further narrowing the range of genetic variation, could make the problem far worse.
Widespread use of cloning to create our livestock could squeeze down the genetic variation in our herds even further than than selective breeding and genetic engineering, which have already drastically reduced genetic variation. If cloning becomes widespread, steps should be taken to maintain a reservoir of genetic variation. The genetic variations dwelling in traditional food crops and livestock, known as land-races, have been bred and selected for specific micro-climates and local preferences across the millenia of agricultural practice. Land-race genetic variation protects our food supply from catastrophic failures because those breeds contain genetic firewalls that limit the spread of infectious agents. Land-races provide a deep well of genetic wealth from which breeders and geneticists regularly draw to improve industrial crops and livestock. There are some efforts to preserve crop land-races in production (growing them out is the only way to truly maintain land-race lines), but maintaining both crop and livestock land-race lines should become a major goal of American agricultural policy to protect our food supply against catastrophic failure due to narrowing of the genetic heritage of our food crops and animals attendant upon the use of cloning. Instead of price supports that encourage overproduction, perhaps payments to husband and grow out land-races in their preferred micro-climates would be a more rational means of having farmers serve the public.
Reducing genetic variation in favor of a single genome that contains all the best traits in the species that we can select or engineer makes a great deal of economic sense. Using clones in our food supply provides a great incentive to develop organisms that enhance the efficiency and productivity of our industrial husbandry system because one can patent an entire organism and more effectively control the use of the one's intellectual property. Clones may make animal products cheaper, more abundant, and, yes, possibly even safer to eat. They will also make our food supply more vulnerable to catastrophic failures that can destroy ever larger percentages of our food at a single stroke.
There is no inherent reason to fear eating a cloned animal or its offspring. There is nothing unsafe about its flesh, and it will likely not carry any significant risk of unforeseen environmental harm. But by squeezing down to just a few genomes the entire variability of our livestock species, we will balance ourselves on a knife's edge for the sake of greater efficiency and profit for agribusiness. At any time, that knife could, and likely will, slice off a significant percentage of our food supply in a destructive epidemic that we simply can't stop. Having cleared away all the genomic firewalls in search of greater efficiency, we may harm the genetic variability and thus the survival of the livestock humans rely on.
I foresee no significant danger in using cloned animals or their offspring for food, nor in animal breeding to increase the incidence of certain traits within the population, but only if variation is maintained by sexual reproduction and a conscious program to husband reserves of genetic variation and maintain a prudent degree of genetic variation in the food supply. If one used just a few genomes to clone the entire breeding population of a livestock animal, even the variation introduced by sexual reproduction would likely not be able maintain sufficient genetic variation to protect the species and our food supply. Of course, regulation by the government would probably be required; private enterprise hasn't the incentive or interest to monitor the industry as a whole for maintenance of a safe degree of the genetic variation. The central rationale for regulating cloning for livestock animals should be to protect against catastrophic failures by maintaining sufficient genetic variation in those livestock animals which form a part of the human food supply. Such a mission is far different from the one the FDA is charged with of determining that clones are simply safe to eat.
Many would simply mandate that consumer labeling identify the products of cloning, much as many wish to label the products of Genetically ModifiedOrganisms . The hope being that consumer preference would simply make the use of such techniques non-viable in the marketplace, obviating the need to make difficult political decisions and mechanisms through the judgment of the marketplace. I don't share their optimism about the market's judgment. I support labeling GMOs: the reasons for doing so are equivalent to identifying possible allergens on labeling. People have had reactions to the proteins present in GMO foods which are not present in the unmodified organism. If any such reason for consumers to know that a product came from a clone were found to exist, I would support labeling it, too. But if there is no actual difference between a sexually produced animal and a cloned one with the same genome, what is there to warn the consumer about?
But, in any case, labeling, as important as it may be, does not address the broader question of how to protect the genetic variation of our food supply. In my view, that is the most important issue that the use of cloning to produce breeders or food animals presents; it is also the issue that the widespread focus on the safety of eating such food tends to overshadow.